How customers can help SMEs create reliable innovation opportunities

Wednesday, 12 July 2017


    Business thrives when customers get what they ask for. In part three of his series on innovation, Andrew Klapka GAICD sets out ways SMEs can engage with their customers to jump-start innovation.

    How customers can help SMEs create reliable innovation opportunities1:49

    One of the ways reliability can be built into innovation outcomes is by introducing diversity and layering into the processes of discovery. Where we look, who we talk to, and what we ask, can unlock opportunities for innovation. Each new layer of enquiry progressively increases the depth with which we test and re-test our assumptions and findings. Ways that businesses can begin to engage with customers on innovation include:

    1. Workshops with internal staff who regularly interact with customers
      Members of the sales, customer service, technical support and marketing teams are ideal.
    2. Workshops with small groups of key customer decision-makers
      Dominant decision- makers and users who influence brand selection most of all.
    3. In-depth individual interviews with lead-user customers and non-customers
      Those who use your product a lot and those who use your competitor’s product.

    How to structure the workshops

    For the workshops, it is helpful to apply a structured approach like ‘mind-mapping’ which will draw out the spontaneous reactions of group participants. A moderator for the workshops will help to capture responses from all participants to obtain balanced feedback and not just the louder opinions.

    Trigger phrases can be used to stimulate discussion and debate. Examples of phrases include; choice of ‘product’ (reasons why?), frustrations with the ‘product’ (what and why?) and the ideal ‘product’ experience (imagine if?).

    Responses from participants are then clustered and ranked to help facilitate discussion on the underlying drivers behind the more frequent responses. These can be further segmented into categories such as ‘problems today’ and ‘interesting future concepts’ to refine the nature of the innovative opportunity.

    The workshop should also introduce findings from earlier workshops to test reactions to previous ideas. It is often surprising and instructive to see the differences in results between what was discovered during the internal staff workshops and those with the actual customers. Assumptions you make as a business are sometimes at odds with what the customer actually needs or expects.

    How to structure in-depth interviews

    Finally, in-depth interviews will enable a deeper one-to-one exploration of how a product serves the purposes of the customer. Three objectives define the focus of the individual interview:

    1. Gain a thorough understanding of how your product or service performs for the customer: the desired job outcome
      This understanding is fundamental to successful innovation. Asking the right questions of staff and your customers will clarify what your customers are after and help to focus your research.
    2. Uncover customer dissatisfaction which may represent opportunities
      Businesses should ask the following questions:
      • What is objectionable about the process of using or buying our product?
      • What is the single largest hassle that you as a customer have to put up with?
      • How would you change our product or service if we could customise it just for you?
    3. Re-test and confirm early findings and ideas
      Repetition of these findings and ideas should be where your business should focus its energy.

    Focusing on the customer improves results

    While there are many techniques for innovation research, those that systematically focus on the customer deliver the best results. All too often businesses either overestimate the benefit to the customer or fail to communicate the value improvement to the customer. Both of these errors stem from insufficient customer engagement during the process of discovery.

    Andrew Klapka GAICD is CEO of TransChem, an importer and distributor of raw materials. Previously he spent 10 years in Paris managing global innovation for Lafarge, a leading European multinational. The earlier articles in this series can be found here and here.

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